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    Jodi P Falk, M.F.A., C.L.M.A.is an international educational consultant, choreographer, dancer, yogi, and teacher. Her work centers on the vehicle of movement and the arts to promote educational wellness, conflict resolution, proficiency, personal and spiritual power. She can be reached at: jodi@dancingsoul.org or 413-522-4386.
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  • Biology and Dance in a High School Class: Embodying the Body

    By msondesigns | December 25, 2008

    Teachers: Jeanne Powers, Biology Teacher at PVPACHS, and Jodi Falk, Dance Director at PVPACHS

    Authors: Jodi Falk and Jeanne Powers
    October, 2008

    Jeanne Powers, Biology teacher at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School in South Hadley, Massachusetts, and Jodi Falk, Director of Dance at PVPACHS, created and implemented a short series of classes that used physical movement exercises to help teach some basic principles of the workings of human cells.  This idea grew from wanting to integrate the performing art of dance into the academic discipline of biology; the result was an integrated class, informed discussion, and essays by the students on the nature of equilibrium, not only in the cells, but also in their lives and on the planet.

    It has been well documented that engaging the kinesthetic intelligence of children in primary and elementary education is a powerful tool for learning many subjects in the academic curriculum (Gilbert, Jensen, Overby, Pica, Griss, and Zakkai).  However, there is very little written about this for high school age children, and whether this kind of intelligence is still a meaningful vehicle for gaining understanding.  This class does not prove nor disprove the possibility that it is meaningful; however, it does serve to ask the question and bring up this possibility in educational discourse.

    Ms. Powers’ wanted to help solidify her students’ understanding of the ways material can move in and out of a semi-permeable cell membrane.  Along with this is the notion of equilibrium, or how a cell balances its materials inside and outside of the cell membrane.  The specific topics she wanted to cover were: DIFFUSION, ACTIVE TRANSPORT with channels, ENDOCYTOSIS and EXOCYTOSIS.

    DIFFUSION occurs when there are particles on either side of a cell membrane and the particles are not equal on both sides.  The particles want to move to equilibrium where the concentration can be the same on both sides of the cell membrane.  The particles will move only from high concentration to low concentration because no energy is used during diffusion.

    In ACTIVE TRANSPORT, energy is used with the help of pathways or channels inside the cell membrane.  This energy, called ATP, helps to “carry” the material across the cell membrane. Because there is energy, the particles can move against the concentration gradient from low to high.

    ENDOCYTOSIS is the ability for a cell to engulf a particle by changing its own shape and bringing it into the cell. EXOCYTOSIS is the opposite, it is the ability for the cell to release material to the outside of the cell.  Both processes involve the cell changing its form to move the particle or material along.

    Ms. Falk decided to do at least one movement exercise for each of the four processes.  For diffusion, Ms. Falk named the process before describing the movement activity; for the others, Ms. Falk had the students move and create and then decipher which process they were embodying.  Discussions followed each exercise.

    Handshake warm-up

    For diffusion, Ms. Falk first led a warm-up where each student shook the hand of another student (this can be done with scarves or gloves on if touching skin is not permitted or practiced) and then another, always keeping one hand connected.  The “game” is to only have one hand, in other words to not be without a hand, or to not be with two hands.  This exercise can reveal some social cues: if someone is too quick to let go of a hand, or highly concerned with another who doesn’t have a hand.  In any case, the idea here is to get used to moving and seeing how movement can be looked at as a metaphor for processes not directly involved in the exercise.  Diffusion is partly depicted in this activity by very little use of energy to move from one person, or cell, to another.

    Bumper car jam

    A more detailed movement game for diffusion followed the handshake warm-up.  Students were asked to connect arm-in-arm two or three across.  When Ms. Falk said “go”, the students were asked to run across the room, and, if they were three across, they were to drop one person onto a two across team, so that the greater number would “diffuse” to a lower number, and equilibrium would be reached.  At least, it would be reached for a moment.  Then, of course, the two across team would now be a three across, and would need to repeat the dropping off action.  This drop-off and pick-up action continued until Ms. Falk said “stop”.  The obvious short-lived nature of equilibrium was truly seen in this exercise.  This point became the basis for essays that the students wrote later in the unit.

    “Me” game

    Without explaining that the next exercise was about active transport, Ms. Falk placed a line of blue tape across the floor.  On one side of the tape, she mentioned that it was the “in”side or “cool” group, and the other side, the “out”side or not as cool group.  This led to a fun discussion about which side was better.  Ms. Falk then asked that if people wanted to go from the “out” to the “in” group, they needed to lean back towards the “in” group, yell out “ME” and the people in the “in” group line up in two lines across from and near to each other, like a channel, and catch the person who said  “ME”, carry them, and bring them into their side.  This “transfer” of a person happens with a good deal of energy used to pick up and carry, as well as coordinate with each other.  This energy represented the much needed ATP for active transport.  When there are too many people in the “in” group, (like too much real estate development on the shore), people from that group do the same to move to the “out” group.

    Cell Volleyball

    Two groups of students get into a circle holding hands, facing outward.  These two circles make two teams, and these teams play a game with a large physioball.  The ball is thrown from one team, without anyone in the team using his or her hands.  The opposite team catches the ball, also without using hands, and passes the ball through the group, which means the circle changes its forms a little, and then shoots it to the other team.  Points are won if the group can catch the ball, and if the group can pass the ball through the group, keeping their hands connected to each other.  As different groups got better at catching and passing, they also seemed to help their opponents get better at it.

    Discussion and feedback:

    Much of the discussion centered around how much teamwork was needed for most of these processes.  Ms. Powers described that indeed teamwork was a central part of the workings of our cells in our bodies.  Students also commented on how the cells need to communicate with each other, and when there weren’t enough helpers in the Active Transport game, others needed to come in and help.  Ms. Powers explained that this happened inside the cells as well; sometimes extra proteins were called on to aid the transport process.  The discussions of each game helped to clarify further the cellular processes inside each of our bodies.

    Student responses:

    Students were then asked how doing the movement games may have helped them reinforce their learning the material of the biology class.  They were also given the option of saying if it didn’t help them at all.  Where there were a few students for whom this was not a helpful method, many comments centered around the following statements:

    “This class reinforced what we learned in the biology class.”

    “I got to see it in action; this helped me know it.”

    “This class brought it full circle; I learned it, I read it, and now I did it.”

     

    “This class made me realize I knew it more than I thought I did.”

    “It made more sense to me because of how it feels.  It’s not just memorizing.”

    “I learned it because I am it.”

    “I’m not going to lie – I thought you would make us choreograph the cytoplasm.  I wasn’t looking forward to this class.  But, I had fun and I really learned something.”

    Stability and Instability Essays:

    In the following week, Ms. Powers focused the class on the aspect of equilibrium. If cells are constantly looking for equilibrium, are we? Do we find it? Would we like it if we did?

    Ms. Powers states: “In class, we brainstormed about the stabilities and instabilities of both themselves and the world.  They were to write about these stabilities and instabilities and think about what the world would be like if everything were stable (at equilibrium).  Then their final task was to write about how stability and instability in the world was similar to the instabilities and stabilities (equilibrium) in cells.

    I believe that the majority of them made the connection from what we did with Jodi (Ms. Falk) and the in class brainstorming.  The movement exercise with Jodi allowed many of them to make the connections that they had not made from just the in-class work.”

    Excerpts from Stability Papers:

    Student A:

    “Nothing can ever become truly stable. It’s almost like saying something is perfect, nothing is ever perfect. Life can’t ever be perfect or stable because everything can be improved upon, no matter what. It’s a good thing that nothing is stable, because if everything was, there wouldn’t be anything to look forward to or work towards. If the world did magically become stable, I feel like everything would soon become extremely bland and boring. There wouldn’t be anything to change. All people learn from their experiences and their mistakes, and if the whole world became stable, there wouldn’t be anything to learn from.

    We need instability to thrive. We need to feel something different all the time, we need to encounter new problems and find a way to work through them. All this just makes us stronger people and allows us to know how to approach new things in the future. I wouldn’t have much to do with my time if the world was stable. I really have no idea what I would do because it’s just so unrealistic. I can’t imagine a stable life, a stable world.

    These questions relate to the stability and equilibrium in cells. Cells are extremely hectic, and are not very orderly. It relates to how life is; nothing is ever perfect, and there is always something going on. Nothing stays the same; the chemistry of the cell is constantly changing and evolving. Just like life.”

    Student B:

    “I think that it is impossible for the world to become stable if we are also stable. Because when the human population is stable that means that all of us are using the world’s resources, and most of us do not give back to the world, most just take. But if there were no humans the world would thrive, it would be a forest rather than a slowly increasing industrial world.”

    Student C:

    “So, I think that the world and the people in it basically work on the same principle on which the cells do when they form equilibrium or balance out. Cells even out to create balance, or some kind of harmony, and that is for the most part how human life works. Just like the cells.”

    Student D:

    “What is stable in about the world: there is really not much that is stable about the world. However, I can honestly say that the socioeconomic diversity of our world is stable. It’s not really a good thing to have this kind of diversity, because is means that there will be poor people; those who get less than their share of the world’s resources.”

    Student E:

    “The world is loaded with stability, though it’s sometimes hard to identify because of the instability masking it.”

    Student F:

    “Cells are constantly searching for equilibrium, much like people are.”

    Student G:

    “Let’s go with that – the world becoming stable. Would life become pointless if it did become stable? Is the point in life to try and “equalize” who we are and all around us? How I think of stability in our world is peace. Once we have stability, we’ll have peace. I just think it’d be kind of hippy-esque, almost. Playing music, singing, laughing, joking, dancing . . . “

    Student H:

    “Stability and equilibrium in cells is very similar to the stability and instability of the world around us. Cells have to work very hard to achieve stability, and when they do, the stability changes rapidly. This is like the world, because the stability in the world is also changing rapidly.”

    Student H:

    “I don’t think we could be stable even if we tried, although I do think one of the faults of the human race is the inability to accept instability.”

    Student I:

    “All of these questions I have answered in this paper relate to the stability and equilibrium in a cell, because cells are hardly ever stable. It is incredibly difficult for cells to be stable, because they are constantly changing. This relates to the real world, because everything around you in the world is also constantly changing, whether you notice it or not.”

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    Morning Prayers in Movement: a Jewish Yoga Class

    By msondesigns | September 3, 2008

     

    There are wonderful resources from Rabbis and other learned people in the Jewish tradition that speak to spirituality of the body (Nachman, Finkel, Michaelson) and the holiness of movement (Michaelson, Bloomfield, Nachman and students). There is an emerging field of Jewish yoga and creative dance (Bloomfield, Klotz, courses at Elat Chayyim, the dance program at the religious women’s college Orot in Elkana, Israel). And, there is still a gap between those ideas, which prove a more movement-filled Jewish origin (dancing after crossing the Red Sea, David dancing wildly by the Ark, the daily shuckling by minyans across the continents and centuries, Psalms which uphold dancing as a glorification of the One), and … reality.

    The other weekend I taught a four-day course at Elat Chayyim on Embodied Relationships, relationship to oneself, to others, to prayer, and to G-d. Embodied prayer was the first idea I had for the course and I focused on that in many of the sessions. As per usual at Elat Chayyim, the spiritual wing of the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Falls Village, CT, there were many inspiring teachers and leaders of heart awakening and love-filled Shabbat services. Shabbat morning, Amichai Lau-Lavie, Executive and Artistic director of Storahtelling, led a rousing Dvor Torah which included Bnai Mitzvah teenagers and their parents. In the beginning of the services, Amichai said something quite simple that complemented my Jewish yoga practice and helped uplift my Shabbat teaching that day.

    Simply put, the morning services, and the morning in general, as we wake, start with Thank You. We say Modeh/Modah Ani upon waking, which is one big Thank You for keeping me alive and waking me up, and go on to the morning prayers which say Thank You for opening eyes, mine and others, for straightening the bent, my body and others, for guiding my steps, etc. The prayers can be seen as an analogy for all humanity but also for getting me out of bed and just, well, thanks.

    Then, after the grateful blessings, we say “Wow”. All the Songs of Praise follow, the “wow” of the wonder of it all, and of G-d. Isn’t that amazing? We say thank you BEFORE we say wow. We don’t say, wow, thank you. We say thank you, wow. It’s not so new age after all to have the “attitude of gratitude” and then magically we have the eyes to really see, to really receive the wonders that exist, that we “have”.

    So, what does this have to do with Jewish Yoga? I use this map, this framework already handed down to Jews for thousands of years, to thematically and literally order the class. First, is thank you. Even if we are tired, cranky, or have the early morning body stiffness. We say thank you. We actually speak our thanks as we begin our class. We become aware of our bodies, sitting on our cushions or mats, and as we stretch and moan we also say thank you for the arms to stretch, for the breath that runs through us, for straightening our bent bodies and even for the pain we experience, since the pain will lead us to our own relief of pain if we learn how to listen.

    Then, as we move more into the first postures of the class, we say “Wow.” Wow, we can stretch that much more, wow, we can balance in that lunge, wow, we can be like a cat or dog, and wow, we can stand.

    Then, as in the service of our tradition, after the wow, is the most important prayer of Judaism. It is said that if you cannot study Torah on any given day, then at least you must say this prayer, in the morning, and in the evening. This is the Shema. The most important prayer of a highly verbal (people of the Book) tradition, a tradition of arguing and wrestling and questioning, is the prayer that tells us to listen. Listen, O Israel, the Lord is Our G-d, the Lord is One. This is what Jews brought to the world, monotheism, and to truly hear this, and live by the example of its teaching, is supposedly the life’s work of all Jews.

    The Shema in the body is a wonderous practice. I have developed a whole morning tradition just on this practice alone. When do you actually listen to your body? What are the results when you do, and when you don’t? At this point in the yoga class, we are standing, and we begin to listen. What does my body need now? Right now? And now? The repeated question is always answered if you let the body speak, and release from your mind making the choice. I don’t believe that the body and mind are separate, but I do believe that in our 21st century western culture we have created a separation that often is detrimental to the body. Rumi, a poet mystic of a much earlier century, agrees: “If you start doing something against your health, your [body] intelligence will eventually scold you.” The question of what my body needs now, not what my mind thinks it needs, can lead to surprising results. When we “think” we are tired, we think that our response will be to lie down. Often if we really hear our bodies, our “tiredness” is our body’s way of asking for attention, and when we give it, our fatigue may give way to joyous opening or soft soothing swaying. Surprise is what happens; we allow ourselves to go into the unknown. And, isn’t that where G-d is?

    This practice is like a known practice in the dance world, Authentic Movement ™. However, we don’t always use a partner as witness, and I bring in questions and images at times into the practice to work with. However, it is interesting that the last letter, ayin, of the Hebrew word shema, the first word in the shema, and the last letter, daled, in the Hebrew word echad, the last word in the shema, spell ed, which means witness. We witness our own silence, our own listening, and our own G-d.

    After the Shema is the Amidah, which literally means standing. We stand to bless G-d, and then hear our thoughts alone, our own connection to the Divine. And, we listen. The Shema practice can bring such great insights that I often bring these two parts of the service together as one on the mat. And in the Amidah, we finally get to, except on Shabbat when all is perfect and we don’t need anything, ask G-d for what we want. That is also perfect; we listen, and then ask, instead of asking, then listening. Just as we say thank you before saying wow, we assert our connection to G-d through listening, and then ask for what we or loved ones, or the world at large, needs.

    On certain mornings, the Amidah is followed by study. We study the words of the Torah. Here, if there is a theme for the class that is based on the parsha shavua, or another text, we work with that text in movement and in words. For instance, with parsha Toledot, we may work with partner counterbalance movements and perhaps a bit of contact improvisation to look at the relationship between Jacob and Esau. We might find the warrior poses in yoga correspond to one of the brothers, while the child’s pose corresponds to the other. Which one corresponds to which is a question of interpretation, and everyone on the mat is encouraged to find their own interpretation based on their movement discovery.

    Finally, at the end of a Jewish prayer service we say Kaddish. This is the prayer that is said for anyone who has died recently, or for an anniversary of someone’s death. Some people say it for those who didn’t have anyone to say it for them, such as those who died in the Shoah, the Holocaust. Interestingly enough, at the end of a yoga class, we do savasana, the corpse pose. We practice dying. In both traditions the body knowledge of death is honored and given a place. It is notable that the Kaddish doesn’t speak of death, but is more praise for G-d. I recently heard a beautiful teaching that the words of praise are actually the words of those souls for whom we are saying Kaddish, rising to their Creator.

    The above is a general outline of what my version of a Jewish yoga class is like. The movement to combine these two traditions is relatively new, considering the age of the traditions, and the field is open and growing. What is your experience?

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    The Ineffable: The Way of Knowing…or not

    By msondesigns | September 1, 2008

    For me, dance is a pathway, a method, not unlike Buddhist meditation or other spiritual practices, for knowing oneself, the world, the connection between the two, and the … ineffable.

    There are two instances I can recall at this moment which epitomize this perspective. One is when I first knew dance was my calling, and one, several years later when working with CandoCo, a mixed ability company in the U.K.

    As a teenager in the late ‘70’s, I strolled into a dance class expecting the usual series of exercises. Instead, the teacher stopped us in our tracks and asked, “What is one movement, just one, that can warm up your entire body?” A simple question. Or is it? Is there really only one? Is there even the possibility of one? Isn’t it all “One”? What is oneness? What is warm? How fun! My body, brain, soul and heart were fully engaged in the process. The other students found a movement. I couldn’t stop.

    Dance then and forevermore became an investigation, a ritual of questioning, a path to knowing and then not knowing. I use this idea of investigation when I become complacent or too inside my own head, to shake myself up and remember to not know.

    A time when an outside impetus shook me up in that way was when I began teaching at the Laban Centre, a dance conservatory in London, England, in 1992. My colleagues asked if anyone would “mind” working with David Toole, a man who started dancing in his late 20’s, who didn’t have legs. Again, how, and what, are legs, to dance? What is dance if it is not embodied by a body I know? How can arms become legs; how can his “dis”ability give him more abilities? Aren’t we all disabled in some way, big or small? My work with him led to a solo at a faculty concert; that led to a commission by CandoCo for that solo with a dancer added to make a duet. How does a more “normal” dancer’s body, in the second dancer, compare or connect with David’s body onstage?

    I describe dance as a method or pathway. The vehicle is the body; the tool for the method is questioning. Not knowing. What could it be if …? Both of these examples have given me the gift of staying open to the deep wisdom of the unknown. Or perhaps what is truly known, on some level, but to our everyday selves, is, ineffable.

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    Dance and “Dis”Ability

    By msondesigns | August 12, 2008

    Dance and “Dis”Ability: moments from working with CandoCo Dance Company in the UK and Remix Dance Theatre in South Africa

     

    “The struggle to find a language to describe the ‘unfound’ movement of dance with an integrated dance company which includes physically challenged dancers is in itself an eloquent expression of progress into a new field, one that speaks of readjustments and ultimately of revisioning.” (Adam Benjamin, Dance Theatre Journal, Summer 1995)

     

    I joined this struggle when I choreographed for two different dance companies that integrated able-bodied and physically challenged dancers: two works on the English contemporary repertory dance company, CandoCo, and another work, with co-choreographer and poet Ellen Kaz, on the South African dance company, Remix Dance Theatre, ten years later. Both had their versions of what constitutes integration, virtuosity, political awareness, and mixed ability, and yet they both agreed on the desire to be seen completely on artistic par with any contemporary dance company working today.

     

    Due to the physical uniqueness and artistic success of both companies, they have broadened the view of theatre dance and the dancing body held by audiences, promoters, and other artists. The struggle mentioned above includes not only the language, but also ideological issues which are embedded in dance practice. Who can dance on the professional stage? What determines “good” dancing? Even the choreographic process itself is challenged and struggled with in this work.

     

    The very definition of disability by the World Health Organization in the 1980’s presupposes a lack, or “inability”. “Any restriction or lack (resulting from impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being.” (The Attenborough Report) Impairment is defined as “any loss or abnormality of psychology, physiology, or anatomical structure or function.”

     

    CandoCo and Remix Dance Theatre by their very existence play havoc with this definition of disability. Although many of the dancers have physiological impairments, each performs activities, by virtue of his/her profession, far outside the manner and range considered normal for human beings. How much they are considered dancers, or “acrobats of God” as Martha Graham put it, is proven by their reviews, number of fans, and hectic international (CandoCo) and national (Remix) touring schedule. However, in the case of CandoCo ten years ago, their reviews, fans, and promoters distinguished in their writings and requests for pieces specific to particular disabled dancers, and thus begged the question of what kind of disabilities are acceptable onstage, what classifies a disabled dancer as virtuosic, and what is the nature of virtuosity in the making of “integrated” dances.

     

    Historical Precedence

    The Remix Dance Theatre is co-directed by Nicola Visser, a former Laban Centre London student who saw the CandoCo company and modeled the group after them. Both companies did not start out to be a political or therapeutic tool for the physically challenged in dance. The main goal was to be a company of dance artists, some of whom are physically challenged, performing professional works in professional settings. This is an outgrowth of the democratization in western concert dance that was born out of the Judson Church and Grand Union dance groups in the 60’s and 70’s in the US, and the X6 in the 70’s and 80’s in the UK. The philosophies of these generations of dancers were ones of inclusion; dance bodies could be relaxed, untrained, “non-dancers”, nude, eating, creating sexual imagery, etc. (Sally Banes, Terpsichore in Sneakers) However, it is interesting to note that the word sometimes used for this new dancer is “pedestrian”; even the inclusion was exclusive of those in wheelchairs or without legs.

     

    Although the eighties became an era of greater control over body image and muscularity, as well as a time of greater virtuosity of the more traditional type, this history of expanding definitions paved the way for the dance world to accept varying bodies into its fold. And although the dance world accepted various bodily shapes and sizes, the records of physically challenged bodies in the history of professional theatre dance are very few. And the idea that a physically challenged body can be virtuosic is a relatively new concept in dance; virtuosity has represented the eternal struggle of “man against the threats of time, space and chance.” (Selma Jeanne Cohen, Next Week, SwanLake)

     

    CandoCo

    CandoCo itself, at least ten years ago, was hierarchical about the issue of the eligibility of the performer and the philosophy of inclusion. The existence of the company and its pioneering work in integrated community dance workshops throughout England is a strong statement for inclusion of all as participants in dance and for dance to embrace non-traditional bodies in its working processes and artistic products. However, not any “disabled” (their term at the time) or able-bodied dancer can join the company. Dancers audition; some get fired. One has to have the qualities that this company looks for; a company style develops. The issue of finding replacements for injured dancers epitomizes the company’s political stance on the physically challenged performers. Categorically, no able-bodied dancer can replace a disabled dancer, especially one using a wheelchair. This, they feel, would be unfair to the dancer and to their audience, a percentage of whom are disabled. This also means that many of the dances are performer-specific; once those company members leave, so do the dances. Yet, the company sought to build a repertory of work for large-scale touring. Therefore, CandoCo balances their inclusion ethos with the market forces of a stable repertory touring company.

     

    The audiences and critics took time to accept CandoCo’s performers as artists in their own right. At first, critics were overwhelmingly positive, almost giving what Clement Crisp of the Financial Times dubbed, the “sympathy vote.” Adam Benjamin, one of the cofounders of the company, offered that CandoCo’s arrival in the dance scene was only confirmed once they started receiving some negative criticism.

     

    The reviews the company received during my time working with them, mid-nineties, were often about the virtuosity of one of its performers, David Toole, a man born without legs due to Thalidimide and a beautifully present performer. The virtuosic dancer is often seen as someone stronger, more fit, more beautifully facile than most dancers. Here, the virtuoso is a man without legs, and at times it is because of his disability that he is such a virtuoso.

     

    To Please the Desert, 1992, premiered at Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1993, (“intense, still beauty” – The London Times, “To Please the Desert was the triumph of the programme” – Scotland on Sunday) is the first of two works I made on the CandoCo dance company of the UK. It began as a solo work for David Toole, who showed up at the Laban Centre London where I taught, new to dancing and new to us as a physically challenged student. The rest of my students were not physically challenged, at least not visibly, and the test was to integrate the class in order to challenge everyone. I began to make movement for everyone that was based on David’s movement possibilities; torso use, hand details and contact improv were important foci of the class. He had at this time just begun working with the company, mostly dancing in his wheelchair. He had one duet in which he left his chair that made an impression on me. I began to choreograph on him for a faculty show; Adam Benjamin saw the work and invited me to choreograph for the company.

     

    Certainly I was aware of a fine line to walk between working with David as a man with special limitations as well as capabilities and the possibility of abusing him as a was done with other physically challenged people in “freak shows” of the past. Clement Crisp said in a BBC interview, “if David were not so talented, it would be embarrassing. But he is incredibly talented. And so it is marvelous.” (BBC, February 1996)

     

    I worked with his virtuosity, and it was to include his unique facility. His body composition allowed him to create images that others cannot; he can look as though he is rising from the ground when he lifts himself from a resting position on his ribcage to standing on his hands. He could rest on one hand, while lifting the other arm spear-like into the air, an arm penche. A person with legs cannot do this. He could make us see the actual disability of being conventionally able-bodied.

     

    I spent time with David, seeing what he can do, what could be translated from my body to his. And what in dance is beyond the body. What instead is about presence, energy, will, commitment. I watched him and both remembered and forgot his special body. Why? David seemed to prove that the dance is beyond a body and is something more, a lived, phenomenological connection between performer and audience. His virtuosity came not from struggling against “time, space and chance” but from playing with them.

     

    To Please the Desert became a duet between David and Kuldip Singh-Barmi, a beautiful able-bodied dancer, at Adam’s request. My aim was to discover and enhance both dancers’ physical capacities, and not to disable anyone. I discovered two ways of getting there, one through working on weight sharing and relying on each other physically, and the other was using rhythm as an initiating factor. The studio was like a sound canvas where I asked the dancers if they could help create the sound I was looking for; I wanted to watch the rhythm of the different body parts in counterpoint with each other. I felt this to be a common ground on which to integrate the two performers. I focused on time over physical steps to integrate two very different bodies by me, a third body. And questions… can you? at first was met with a “no”, to which David and Kuldip would try anyway, and then do it.

     

    When David was asked what a good dancing body was, he replied “one that doesn’t collapse.” (author’s interview with David, June 1996) The loosening of what a dancer is has opened the field to allow more the technique of the individual. Perhaps one of the legacies of CandoCo is to more fully embrace the modern dance’s main premise: the importance of the individual.

     

    Remix

    Ten years later, I directed and co-choreographed a new work, Mapping the Wild Ground, 2004, (“remarkable” – Johannesburg Star) with choreographer and poet, Ellen Kaz, on the Remix Dance Theatre of South Africa. This company, modeled after CandoCo, is fast becoming well-known all over South Africa. It carries many of the political and artistic missions of CandoCo. It not only integrates dancers in terms of “dis”ability, but also in terms of race, still quite a factor in the country ten years after the end of apartheid.

     

    The issue of apartheid was in the forefront of my talks with Nicola before we began, mainly in her telling me straight out that no one would appreciate an American coming in and making a “post-apartheid” piece, this after a question I had about how the political milieu affects the dancers. So, there was no direct reference or focus on such a vast, indescribable issue. Yet, with one white Afrikaaner dancer in a wheelchair, (who is the co-director of the company, Malcolm Black) and one Black able-bodied dancer, Monwabisi Mraji, there was no getting around the issue. It was just there. There were other considerations. With my collaborator, Ellen Kaz, there was a debate about who should speak her words on the recording of the sound. If it was her voice, a fellow American, that would speak too much of cultural imperialism. If it was a male voice, and South African, then which dialect or from which race or class should the voice be? The piece ended up at the showing having Ellen’s voice, and then a later version a white female South African voice. Even the title, with the word “wild”, was considered and questioned.

     

    Beyond these issues, were two male dancers, friends (although at this writing Monwa has left without a word and with some of Malcolm’s possessions, another unfortunate nod to a history of injustice and despair) and interested in working. Again, the way forward for me was to create situations where each dancer relied on the other to make their movements happen. And when that wasn’t the case, the two legs, four arms, and two wheels were the elements of mobility Ellen and I tried to craft and coordinate. Again, rhythm seemed to be the integrating element. Monwa’s hands on the wheels of Malcolm’s chair, moving in a two against a three rhythm, created a visual cadence that fused their bodies. Also, the focus of the piece was the idea that one needs to go through anything to get beyond it, including our bodies. So, the bodies leaned into each other, in struggle, in ease, and at the end, in both of them standing up (a feat Malcolm isn’t able to do by himself). The rhythm of the movement was further accentuated by the rhythm of Ellen’s words, a word poem that she created at the same time that the piece was being made.

     

    Again, most importantly, was a process of questions. Can you, will you, what would this be like, are all questions that take on a different meaning in this context. The answer might be no, or only this way, and this way may be truly different due to wheels instead of legs, or the unpredictability of a physical disability. In any case, the questions lead to further inquiry and with an open mind, new possibilities that emerge from a coming together of diverse bodies and new options.

     

    The legacies these companies leave, among their works and their artistic integrity, include larger access, not just physically, but in attitude, towards dance training and practice by other-than-optimal bodies. The choreographic process, here discussed not as an inviolable structure but a template of questions that serve to inform and enlighten dancer and choreographer. This is a model for able-ism in dance practice. With or without socially defined disabilities, all dancers and choreographers have unique abilities and disabilities from which art can be made.

     

    The legacy I have inherited from this work involves widening my notions of virtuosity in dance and altering my choreographic methods. Virtuosity becomes more than the manifestation of the will of man over nature; it becomes a more individualistic triumph over one’s own “disabilities” within the framework of artistic expression. Physical presence can override anatomy. Choreographically, focusing on the elements or essences of a work serves to integrate very different bodies; vocabulary shifts to center on the performer(s) and above all open and direct dialogue serves to transform choreographer and dancer.

     

    Questions of mechanics, fears and societal taboos surface between dancer and choreographer as they find mutual ground in the dance of integration. Dance, then, perhaps truly transcends the notion of the perfect body. The process also becomes one of transcendence; boundaries are broken and the choreographer must play not the role of leader of his/her vision of the dance but a facilitator of visions – the visions of the dancer about the dance and self, the vision of the dance as it shapes to the materials at hand, and the vision or “revisioning” of dance to audiences.

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    Topics: Dance | 1 Comment »

    Yoga and Ethics in High School

    By msondesigns | August 12, 2008

    Jodi’s newest article, “Yoga and Ethics in High School”, was published in Journal of Dance Education, and her work with teens on yoga and ethics was featured in YOGAJOURNAL.

    Yoga and Ethics in High School
    Jodi P. Falk, M.F.A., C.L.M.A.

    In the past three years, I have taught yoga classes to students at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School, in addition to my job as Dance Director. This school already is an open environment; the students are generally interested in the arts (although as a charter school we have a lottery instead of an audition admissions procedure) and the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts is known for its larger-than-national-average proportion of left-of-center thinkers. This allowed me to teach yoga as a holistic discipline, meaning not just as a series of steps and poses, but as a way of thinking and being in the world that is many thousands of years old.As the primary dance teacher, I know about the power of movement as a form of release, fun, self-empowerment, practice in discipline, and psycho-physical integration. I also know that focusing on each form that is taught in our school: ballet, modern, jazz, African, break-dance, funk, tap, choreography, Laban analysis for actors and dancers, among others, can sometimes compartmentalize the movement learning into specific skills for specific actions. Teaching yoga as a holistic discipline allows me to do two important things: teach from a perspective that opens my own mind to new possibilities existing outside my dance knowledge base, and reach a larger population of students that might not find themselves inside a dance studio but who wish to connect to their body-minds.
    Although yoga can produce a limber, strong, and centered body, the actual goal of yoga itself can be found in the English translation of its name — union. Yoga is a way to achieve a unified being – unified in body, mind, emotions and spirit. It isn’t very yogic to embody the poses, or asanas, with presence and calmness, to challenge oneself with humility and compassion, and then leave the studio and commit road rage, verbally abuse your fellow classmates, or on the other side of the spectrum hide yourself and your talents from others due to fear or lack of confidence. Yoga is a practice that makes its practitioners more humane, calm, powerful, and insightful. Yoga, according to author and yogi Stephen Cope, is about the “twin pillars of clear seeing and calm abiding,”(1) being able to see clearly oneself and one’s actions and thoughts, and also to create equanimity and compassion about oneself and one’s actions and thoughts.

     

    One of the pathways toward union that yogis practice is called the yamas, or ethical principles. Here we get into tricky territory in a public school, yet due to the open-mindedness of my administration and colleagues, I decided to plunge in and teach these principles in an interactive way. The following is an outline of this unit of the course, and some of the reactions of the students who participated. This unit follows weeks of doing the poses, or asanas, and breath techniques or pranayama. Toward the end of the course I also have them do a karma yoga (service through action) project in their community.

     

    Yamas and Character Education

    The yoga class is focused primarily on postures and breathing techniques, but two weeks in the cycle of 15 are spent learning about the five main ethical principles and how they may create new awareness and changes in our lives.

    In class, we take as a starting point an article written by Judith Lasater in Yoga Journal called Beginning Journey.”(2) This article frames the yamas in contemporary, practical ways. Students read the article, and usually pretty lively discussions follow: “Does practicing non-violence mean I can’t get angry at my sister?” “Is it greed if I don’t share food with someone who needs it when I need it too?” and, on a more charged note, “When I go to the mosh dances, we bump into each other and hit each other purposely. Is this violent?”

    Students choose a yama that they wish to “work on” for two weeks and then record in a journal the resulting awareness and actions that arise. For instance, they note when the desire for violent thought arises, whether it is toward themselves or others, consider their options, and write down the results. Just noting when it arises may be all it takes for thoughts to shift. Another student may see that asteya, non-stealing, as Lasater explains can also mean not stealing from yourself, not hiding your talents or needs. She may decide to go ahead and practice her piano or take the risk of auditioning for the school musical and give herself the gift of fulfilling her potential. The five yamas, in contemporary re-working are: ahimsa, non-violence; asteya, non-stealing; satya, truth-telling; bramicharya, presence and total commitment; and aparigraha, non-greed. I stress to the students that becoming aware may or may not result in change, but it is the first step. The goal is not necessarily to change, although many of the students begin to see the benefits of reviewing their thoughts and actions. The goal is to see how many times these ethical principles are called for in our lives. The choices they make after noticing that are theirs.

    Some Results

    A young woman in my class, working on ahimsa, or non-violence, noted how many times she was nasty to her sister. She decided to try to be nicer, or at least walk away instead of producing verbal venom. She began to actually like her sister more and had more positive interactions with her.

    A young man, who has been sent in the past by the state to anger management classes, also chose ahimsa. He watched the ways anger arose in his family and wrote about how many times his mother called him “ugly” or “worthless” and wrote about how he at times agreed with this estimation. He then wrote about how much his girlfriend supported him and how he came to her aid in a touchy situation with another male adolescent. He talked about how he wanted to act violently toward this teen and about how he stood up for her without becoming violent. He had not yet made the leap between his familial belief system and his anger, but he had begun to see how he could correct his own actions.

    Another young woman suffers from a neurological disorder and is often afraid of physical challenges. Her illness sometimes causes weaknesses in visual-spatial relationships and working memory. Taking the class itself was a lesson in asteya, not stealing from her potential, and she focused on bramicharya. Traditionally this yama was translated as celibacy, and in Lasater’s article it is revised as presence, doing what you are doing now, in this moment, and nothing else. (In sexual matters this would mean being faithful to your partner in thought and deed.) This young woman used bramicharya as staying committed and focused to her work in her class, not giving up or getting anxious. She, in this way, helped to overcome her real and perceived physical limitations.

    In no way were any changes the students felt easy and obstacle-free. Yet they saw it as a process and a new way of looking at their world. There certainly were those students who did not invest themselves as much as others, but overall the work seemed valuable.

    What For?

    After eight years of teaching dance full-time in high school, and ten years before that of teaching dance in university, conservatory, and private settings, I have come to realize that even with the wonderful vehicle of movement, the content that I teach takes second place to the how, the why and the what for of what I teach. What good is knowing how to do a really amazing leap or well-aligned plié if the student is angry, unloved, scared, or anxious? The body is a perfect vehicle to notice, breathe into, accept and change these places inside ourselves and to find ways of doing so appropriately in community.

    A good dance class can also address the issues behind the form, the dancer from the dance. I have found that the emphasis that yoga places on the proper action in the community allows me to open the students to these ideas as a natural part of the form.

    The end of the semester brings our karma yoga project. Karma means “action”, and karma yoga is the practice of doing an action without the thought or need for reward. This project changes every semester. Sometimes the students make a commitment to do a certain action, like cleaning up the area around the school. Sometimes our whole class does a project, like teaching a yoga class for the local senior citizens with disabilities.

    Although it is certainly important to note that I am not a therapist and I have the support of the school guidance counselor when needed, the seeds of understanding, compassion, and insight that this practice seems to have brought to these students shows me that perhaps this is one step toward helping our nations’ teens, a vulnerable group at best, develop skills far beyond the traditional classroom.

    References
    1. Cope S: Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. New York; Bantam Books, 1999. p. 122.
    2. Lasater J: Beginning the Journey. Yoga Journal November/December 1998. pp. 42-44.
    Article published in Journal of Dance Education, pp 132-134, Volume 5, Number 4 

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